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Hike: Browns Peak / Four Peaks

Posted Nov 16 2009 10:01pm
For many years I stared North and East from the Valley of the Sun and dreamed to climb the Four Peaks. While eclipsed in scale locally thanks to the Superstitions, South Mountain and Camelback Mtn., the Four Peaks do have the prime distinction of being the only visible location of snow covered mountain tops from the city. The photo below is not self generated or indicative of my hike on this day. This is just a very pretty picture.

While there are four peaks, only one has an established route, Brown's Peak. This would be the tallest peak, the furthest left in the photo. It is named Brown's Peak. The other three simply labeled numerically, 2-3-4. Its a bumpy 20 mile drive on a unmaintained forest service road to get to the trail head. Four wheel drive is highly recommended but not mandatory.

At the trail head, around 5,600 feet, it is certainly Fall. Crisp cold air. A golden sun peaking through green fir and scrub. Wind through the trees. Frost on the ground. Its is so nice to see green on something other than cactus and weeds. There is only a couple vehicles in the lot and one hiker with a dog who said he came back short of a summit.

The first hour of the hike is pure high country scenery. I've had enough of desert hiking, I really enjoy the ecosystem that presents over 5,000 feet. The trail is loamy dirt, not sand or crud. There was a fire here a little over a decade ago and burnt tree limbs still liter the area. If anything it gives you an appreciation for the power of nature, almost everything I see is younger than me. There are massive round rock formations all around us that the low growth only accentuates.

The trail reaches a saddle at just under 2 miles. We stood there looking at a soft ridge to our right, certainly not one of the Four Peaks, and what appears to be a straight up rock climbing proposition to our left. A returning hiker shows us the route through a narrow scree chute to the top of the peak. We locate three of his friends on the face and he explains he turned around because the climb was too exposed for his taste.

Many, many years ago I rock climbed on a regular basis. I wasn't a very strong climber but I have found that that carries as much weight as saying, I am not a very good Ironman. It is something held up as slightly crazy and out of norm with society, therefore revered regardless of ability. The final season I climbed, I gave myself two concussions from falling. Mistress watched me fall on the second one. For those counting, these were concussions eleven and twelve for me. On that day she made me promise if I ever climbed or bouldered again I would wear a helmet and that I would never climb or boulder again. Looking at the half mile in front of me, I'm about to break a promise to wife.

None of the guidebooks or online descriptions for Brown's Peak or Four Peaks really does any justice to what they uniformly call, The Chute. It is often described as a scree chute, if at all mentioned. Here is the reality. It's freaking steep. On the rock climbing scale, I would rate four obstacles between Class 3 and 4. We remind ourselves that lots of people climb this chute every year, without injury, so my trail buddy and I keep going.

The chute itself is a capable trail with no way of getting lost. How can one get lost when either side is shoulder width apart. The first exposure is a lateral move of about two meters. It is true bouldering with only hand holds and toe holds to move across. The next exposures are more technical climbing routes of four to five moves each. No need to be roped, but the constriction of the walls and the lack of any soft landing make the anxiety factor a bit higher than required. The true blessing and what I am sure has kept injuries to a minimum is the perfect sized hand hold all and the decent sized foot placements.

The summit is small, the size of a small bedroom. On a clear day I am told its the best panoramic view in the state. It quite possibly is but on this day a haze keeps our view to a just a level of spectacular. Turns out my trail buddy has intermittent cell phone service. I call Mistress to tell her I am okay, just reached the summit but behind schedule. What occurs is two dropped calls and an unsent text messages that leaves her fearing the worst until I call two hours later. During that time she thinks I am calling from a hospital and they have told me to turn off my phone. When it comes to me and mountains, this has happened.

Whether we needed to or not we belayed our packs down the vertical challenge. I don't think it helped or hindered our time but it allowed me to use the short rope I carry in my pack and practice belays. Plus I got to climb without the extra weight on my back. At no point do I feel that I can't make a move down, its figuring the first right move.Once committed the problem is easy to solve.

A constant statement I use on the way up and twice as much down is, "My wife is going to be disappointed when she sees these pictures." Though it is impractical for most hikers, if I do this climb again I will bring my helmet.

Once back to the saddle, its a fairly brisk hike back down to the trail head where the aforementioned follow up call with Mistress takes place and her stress level drops to normal. I haven't heard that sort of relief in her voice in a long time. Not sure if I should be happy or sad about that. The day ends with another major hiking accomplishment in the state of Arizona.

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